The NewYorčanka in me recently had a traumatizing experience.
In the fall, I was staying with my Czech family, who were doing something very Czech that a lot of Americans would find unusual.
They were fermenting cabbage – which starts with prepping it in the bathtub.
Yup, grating it, stepping on it, draining the water that comes out, and then putting it in huge containers to ferment (‘krauting’).
No really, yum. Have you ever tasted Czech food?
In any case, I was chatting about the ‘bathtub tradition’ with my Czech mom (in Czech) when she referred to the cabbage as “pickles.”
Let’s take a little walk through Czech culture, language and cabbage with a little help from Saša the cat, shall we?
The conversation continued something like this:
Me: But that’s not a pickle.
CM: Yes, it’s ‘pickles.’
Me: Um… that doesn’t look like a pickle to me.
CM: It is pickles. It’s called pickles! (laughing)
Me: Sure, except that it’s definitely not a pickle.
What ensued then was a mind-blowing moment of language borrowing.
We turned to the books – and the Internet – to try to explain the phenomenon and meet in the middle somewhere. As it turns out, “pickle” has been adopted into Czech as a loanword from English as a way to express any vegetable that is fermented. This would include cabbage (sauerkraut), gherkins/cucumbers, beetroot, cauliflower, and more.
Collectively, the fermented end product would be called “pickles,” in the plural.
Ironically, this loanword use does not describe what Americans call pickles. In fact, it’s almost opposite. For us, pickles are exclusively cucumbers that have been preserved in brine (nálev: a mix of vinegar, salt, and spices). These aren’t the long cucumbers – we use a variety of small cucumber types, like Kirby, gherkin, and English hothouse.
So we can say they that pickles are pickled, but they are not fermented, as the Czech “pickles” are.
Czechs also pickle vegetables, but call it nakládání, with the cucumber/gherkin version (American pickles) called nakládačky.
In Sum: To pickle ≠ to ferment. Pickle (Am) ≠ Pickles (CZ).
Well anyway, works for me as long as I get to eat it.
Another speechless moment occurred when I went mushrooming with my Czech grandma in the hills above our village.
I was worried about how she would get around since the hills are quite steep. She chose to carry a cane with her although she usually doesn’t need it.
Turns out, I should have been way more worried about my sore calves after our very successful outing.
When I expressed my concern to my Czech mom before we left, she told me not to worry.
“Grandma is like a koza,” she said, trying to reassure me.
This requires a little explanation.
When you learn a language, you learn to put words into certain buckets in your mind so you can understand and use them. Koza has two meanings.
I had accidentally stored this word in the wrong bucket – the slang one – where (usually used in the plural form) it means “boob.”
At the time, I was super confused, so I said nothing.
As it turns out, my Czech mom was referring to the more common meaning: “goat.”
But that STILL doesn’t make sense, you protest!
Koza can be used as an idiom for a spry, agile person – think a mountain goat.
And that’s exactly what Grandma proved herself to be. Seriously, I was amazed. Me – ever the hugely naive mushrooming enthusiast – would bend down excitedly to show Grandma what I’d found, and she’d already be a hundred meters away, exploring some promising patches of forest.
She later said she hadn’t been mushrooming for so long that it had invigorated her.
Mountain goats – am I right?